July 2020 Newsletter: Beyond the Classroom Setting
July 14, 2020
Peacebuilding in Cyber Space: Khebz w Meleh Online
June 12, 2020

Wading Through the Challenges Toward
a New Operational Framework

Walid Zailaa
July 14, 2020

Chapter two

Last month, ABTS President Elie Haddad introduced the rationale behind our curriculum’s new format and its key elements. This is proving to be a timely radical transition. In his article, Elie promised to keep you posted as our explorations mature. The journey so far has been both exciting and challenging. Together, we have learned that the notion of “waiting for the storm to pass” so we can re-introduce our theology program in a traditional fashion is no longer an option. COVID-19, on top of a chain of crises in Lebanon, propelled the leadership team and faculty to think strategically about the current status-quo and the next step in fulfilling ABTS’s mission. The team is looking back with gratitude and appreciation for a 60-year legacy in the field of theological education in a full-time residential form but stepping toward a new operational framework (modified) that is emerging out of the current crises, the rapid advancement of technology, and more importantly, the need of ministry workers to study theology.

In this article, I will unveil some of the technical details we have discussed so far. To start with, the academic year for new students will start in February of every year with a two-week residency followed by the core modules of the first year, which are delivered online (figure 1).
The purpose of the “induction residency” is to lay a foundation by introducing first-year students to theological study at ABTS, forming them into a cohort and a community of learners, and helping them view their study through the lenses of the Kingdom of God and their local ministries. During the residency, students, faculty, and staff are introduced to each other to establish a trust relationship. Students are exposed to the vision and educational philosophy of ABTS. They are also given a series of introductory tasks in research methodology, critical thinking, and academic integrity. Furthermore, students are asked to complete a personality and spiritual-gifts assessment based on the ABTS profile of the ideal graduate. By the end of the induction residency, students should be able to demonstrate growth in their understanding of ABTS’s ethos of self and of others; in embracing ABTS’s mission, vision, and values; and in articulating their uniqueness, calling, and potential.

At this point, they will be ready to take their first step toward their theological study at ABTS. The first academic year, which runs over 16 months, consists of six foundational modules that are delivered in an online format. Each module, except for the Intro to Islam course (two weeks), is taught over a period of 12 weeks, using Moodle platform as the primary learning management system (LMS). The integrative nature of the modules, in which the different lenses of biblical-theological, sociological-cultural, historical-theological, and personal ministerial are interconnected is the cornerstone of the curriculum at ABTS. The climax of each module is a major integrative project, which employs a problem-based learning approach (complex real-world problems are used to encourage learning of theoretical concepts). The culmination of year 1 will be a virtual induction of the coming years in which students will briefly reflect on their study so far and to glance at what lies ahead in their journey at ABTS.

Upon successful completion of the foundational year, in which more than 40 percent of the modules is devoted solely to the knowledge and interpretation of the Scriptures, students are eligible to move into the second year. Second, third, and fourth year students study together in alternating years A, B, or C. Each of the three years consists of two elective periods, two core modules, and three residencies (figure 2). At this stage of their journey, they will be asked to attend one residency every year, depending on their cohort and academic year. This is to say that those who are in their second or third academic year will attend the October residency. One cohort will have their residency during the first two weeks of October, and another cohort will have their residency during the two following weeks. Those who are in their last year (another cohort) will attend the capstone residency in June.
Years A, B, and C include a three-year cycle of core integrative modules. The rationale for the integrative modules is a dialogue between the ABTS Vision focus on God, Individual and Community, and the seven ABTS Foundational Values. The provided theme for each module is a matter of emphasis with our vision, mission and values woven into it. As mentioned earlier, we will offer two core modules online every year in the following sequence: Nature of God, Kingdom of God, Restored Community, Missional Church, Lifelong Discipleship, and Empowering Servant Leaders.

The elective period, which is one of the curriculum’s key features beyond year 1, remains one of the most challenging elements in this transition. During the electives period in the old residential program, with the help of interpretation in the classroom, students were exposed to a wide range of renowned scholars from all over the world. With the online framework in the new modified program, it would be nearly impossible for a non-Arabic-speaking faculty to teach. It is worth mentioning that teaching at ABTS is not simply content-based or else we could have the material translated into Arabic and uploaded on our platform. Holistic formation, which requires faculty interaction, feedback, assessment, and personal relations, is the primary focus of theological education at the seminary. Visiting faculty, however, will remain part of the second and third year residencies.

Since holistic formation, with all that it entails, is the driving force of theological education at ABTS, the residency period in the modified program is crucial to the formation process. A two-week residency at the beginning of October for second-year students followed by another two-week residency at the end of October for third-year students will be required. The driving force of the residency is the formational elements of the curriculum that cannot be accomplished online. Each October residency is perceived as a spiritual retreat in which we will grow together spiritually. In other words, the concept of spiritual formation is intertwined within the fabric of the various on-campus activities of that period. Furthermore, students will be exposed to a wide variety of local ministries in Lebanon during their time at ABTS, which will widen their perspective and sharpen their experience.

Students in their fourth and final year will attend the capstone residency just before graduation in June. Toward the end of their journey at ABTS, the capstone residency is designed to help the students look back and reflect on the changes they have observed in themselves since the beginning of their time at seminary. This is a vital exercise for their ministry post-graduation and for a journey of lifelong learning.

We are currently crafting the non-formal components of the curriculum. This is the last step in the design before we start the process of reconceptualizing the content and its implementation. We are almost there. Keep us in your prayers as we wade through many challenges in Lebanon and the Arab world. When I look back, I see how the Lord had been preparing us gradually for such a time. We now have most of the pieces of the puzzle; we need God’s wisdom and guidance to put them together!